The AirAsia plane which went missing with 162 people on board en route for Singapore is likely at the bottom of the sea, Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency chief said Monday.
“Based on the coordinates given to us and evaluation that the estimated crash position is in the sea, the hypothesis is the plane is at the bottom of the sea,” Bambang Soelistyo told a press conference.
“That’s the preliminary suspicion and it can develop based on the evaluation of the result of our search.”
Indonesia had resumed a sea and aerial search at dawn Monday for the plane, as anguished relatives waited desperately for news.
The Airbus A320-200 disappeared en route from Surabaya in Indonesia’s east Java to Singapore after the crew requested a change of flight plan due to stormy weather, in the third crisis for a Malaysian carrier this year.
Five aircraft will be sent to search for the plane, including two C-130 military transport aircraft and a Boeing 737, Indonesian air force spokesman Hadi Cahyanto told AFP.
“Two planes have already left. Three more will follow suit. It is cloudy in some parts but still bright,” Cahyanto said.
“We are focusing the search area in the waters on the eastern and northern part of Belitung island.”
Australia, Malaysia and Singapore have also joined the search, which is centred on the Java Sea. The US has also said it was ready to assist.
A Royal Australian Air Force AP-3C Orion equipped with sophisticated search equipment took off Monday from the northern Australian city of Darwin while Singapore said it was deploying two C-130 aircraft in addition to naval ships already dispatched.
AirAsia said 155 of those on board flight QZ8501 were Indonesian, with three South Koreans and one person each from Singapore, Malaysia, Britain and France. The Frenchman was the co-pilot.
Distraught relatives of the missing passengers spent the night in Surabaya hoping for news of their loved ones.
Security was tight at the airport crisis centre, with dozens of security officers and soldiers seen standing guard.
Vicky, whose two siblings were on the plane, said he was upset to hear an airline official say he joined in their “sadness”.
“What he said was not appropriate at all. If they were sad it means there’s death. But the flight has not been found yet,” he said.
Air traffic controllers lost contact with the twin-engine aircraft around an hour after it left Surabaya’s Juanda international airport at about 5:35 am (2220 GMT Saturday).
Shortly before disappearing, the pilot asked to ascend by 6,000 feet to 38,000 feet to avoid heavy clouds, according to an Indonesian transport ministry official.
“But their request to fly to 38,000 feet from 32,000 feet could not be approved at that time due to traffic, there was a flight above, and five minutes later the flight disappeared from radar,”
Djoko Murjatmodjo told a press conference Sunday.
“According to our climate radar, the weather was not good. There was enough cumulonimbus (cloud) there,” he said.
Prayers for those onboard
The search is focused on waters around the islands of Bangka and Belitung in the Java Sea, across from Kalimantan on Borneo island, but the army has also been asked to carry out ground searches, including in mountainous areas.
The aircraft was operated by AirAsia Indonesia, a unit of Malaysian-based AirAsia which dominates Southeast Asia’s booming low-cost airline market.
AirAsia’s flamboyant boss Tony Fernandes, a former record industry executive who acquired the then-failing airline in 2001, arrived in Surabaya, where most of the passengers are from.
“Obviously this is a massive shock to us and we are devastated by what has happened. It’s unbelievable,” he told a press conference.
“We don’t want to speculate. We don’t know what’s happened yet so we’ll wait for the accident investigation… Our concern right now is for the relatives and the next of kin.”
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo said his nation was “praying for the safety” of those onboard. Vice President Jusuf Kalla was due to visit Surabaya Monday afternoon to meet relatives of those missing.
Indonesia, a vast archipelago with poor land transport infrastructure, has seen explosive growth in low-cost air travel over recent years.
But the air industry has been blighted by poor safety standards in an area that also experiences extreme weather.
AirAsia, which has never suffered a fatal accident, said the missing jet last underwent maintenance on November 16.
The plane’s disappearance comes at the end of a disastrous year for Malaysian aviation.
Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March with 239 passengers and crew, and in July flight MH17 was shot down over troubled Ukraine killing all 298 on board.